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Adventures in retail 

Pay people enough to give a damn

The other day I saw something that summed up Americans' experience with and attitude toward retail customer service. After looking over some books in the "café" at the SouthPark Barnes & Noble, I picked one to buy and headed upstairs to put back the others. As I stepped onto the escalator, I noticed a customer at the store's customer service booth, waiting for an "associate" to show up and help her. The books I re-shelved were in different departments, so it took a few minutes. As I headed back downstairs on the escalator, I glanced again at the customer service booth and there was the same customer, now obviously fuming. She suddenly threw up her hands, turned around and walked out the door.

That tells you all you need to know about American customers and what they expect in the way of retail service — just a little info and direction, please — and how they feel about not getting it.

Americans still like to shop, according to surveys, but not as much as they used to. The reason? Bad customer service, according to a 2012 worldwide survey and report paid for by American Express. Whereas some countries' citizens say customer service has gotten better in their neck of the woods (Japan, India, Mexico), more Americans (as well as Canadians, Australians, Brits and the French) think companies are paying less attention to customer service than before. Gee, fellow Americans, ya think?

About a decade ago, all you heard from business advisers was that improved customer service was the wave of the future, and companies that didn't provide it would suffer. If that advice was ever taken, it was only for high-end stores and their 1-percenter customers. For the rest of us, sparsely patrolled stores are the new norm, and you're no more likely to be helped by a knowledgeable salesperson at a high-end department store than at a dollar store.

Anyone who came of age before the 1990s remembers walking into, say, a large department store and being waited on attentively by one of the store's employees, who were usually in plentiful supply and trained to have some idea of what they were talking about. To get closer to an underlying cause of increasingly poor customer service, one needs to know that "back in the day," good retail workers could usually count on decent raises and could earn a respectable living from their work. Those people often stayed at the same job long enough to earn a supervisory position, too, thus fulfilling what used to be the American ideal of working one's way up through an organization. Today, that's more like the American myth, as fewer and fewer supervisory positions are handed to current lower-level employees, who too often are considered just a notch above the dust on the floor by their employers.

It's not just the calendar that has changed, but also the attitude of employers toward their "help." Today's retail employees aren't just disgracefully underpaid, they're usually also over-worked, under-staffed, under-trained and stressed out. It's bad enough that most retail employers can't bring themselves to pay their workers a living wage. We've also experienced the price being paid by consumers for retailers' tight-fisted ways with their workers: generally crappy customer service in the vast majority of modern retail outlets.

The cause of the current state of customer service isn't a big mystery. Why would employees care about customers if A. business owners aren't interested in creating an atmosphere in which good customer service is rewarded; B. workers know they can get exactly the same (low) wage at another store; and C. they're too tired to care because they're working two jobs to make ends meet?

I was frankly glad to see retail employees around the country, particularly workers for Walmart and fast food places, marching in December for a living wage. Retail employees' pay in the U.S. is shamefully low, usually hovering around or slightly above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That's not enough money to allow anyone to make ends meet without working a second job or getting food stamps (or both); and that situation, simply put, is not how, nor what, America is supposed to be.

So here's another reason to support a substantial raise in the minimum wage: the U.S. could once again see the retail customers that move tons of money through the economy being treated as valuable assets by the companies that benefit from their patronage. Considering the dismal state of the economy and the hijacking of most of the country's wealth by the 1 percent, it's also the least we can do for everyday Americans.

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